Several U.S. government research programs require financial buy-in from institutions when applying for a grant or new instrument. The rationale for cost-sharing—which can amount to half of the size of the award—is to stretch federal dollars and guarantee that every grantee has a stake in the project. But many institutions, including those serving rural areas and students from groups underrepresented in science, can’t raise enough money to even compete for the grant.
So this year, Congress directed the National Science Foundation (NSF) to eliminate the requirement in two of the five agency programs that require cost sharing and see what happens. For the next 5 years, NSF will no longer require universities and other organizations to cover 30% of an award from its major research instrumentation (MRI) program, which funds new equipment. It is also ending the 50% match required by two of the four funding tracks in the Robert Noyce Teacher Scholarship Program, which trains math and science teachers.
The change was tucked into the new CHIPS and Science Act aimed at improving U.S. competitiveness with China, which President Joe Biden signed into law in August. Advocates say it’s long overdue. “I’m hoping that we’ll see an expanded landscape of institutions getting these grants, and that such diversity will strengthen science everywhere,” says Cheryl Hayashi, provost of science at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, which in the past has had to go to great lengths to line up the matching funds needed to win MRI and Noyce awards.
But some observers worry about possible negative repercussions. Requiring NSF to foot the entire cost of MRI and Noyce awards will mean fewer or smaller grants unless Congress increases each program’s budget. (MRI’s $75 million budget now supports some 150 awards annually, and Noyce makes about 60 to 70 grants a year from its $67 million budget. MRI awards range from $100,000 to $4 million, and Noyce grants can be as large as $3 million over 6 years.)
A more level playing field is also likely to generate more applications, making for even fiercer competition. Ironically, the result could be fewer awards to the very institutions the waiver is meant to aid.
“I think [the change] will open the floodgates,” says Timothy Ramadhar, an organic chemist at Howard University, a historically Black institution in Washington, D.C, who recently won an MRI award for a single-crystal x-ray diffractometer to analyze molecular structures. And if NSF responds by providing smaller grants, he says, “institutions may have to settle for cheaper instruments. Maybe it’ll be something that’s good for teaching but not good enough to support cutting-edge research.”
The CHIPS Act is the latest congressional statement on cost-sharing at NSF. For decades cost-sharing was a routine requirement in many NSF programs. But in 2004 the agency decided it was discriminatory and dropped the requirement.
Congress thought that was too drastic a step, however. In 2007 it mandated cost-sharing for the Noyce and MRI awards and told NSF to take another look at the pros and cons of cost-sharing. That review led to a 2009 policy that limited cost-sharing to five agency programs, including its engineering research centers program and the Established Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR), which earmarks funds for states that receive little agency funding.
The new law orders NSF to report back in 5 years on how the waiver for MRI and Noyce has affected participation and the quality of the research, as well as whether it should become permanent. It also requires NSF to assess its impact on the demographics of the applicant pool. (NSF does not publicly release data on applicants for individual programs.)
One question is whether the waiver will result in more proposals from a more diverse pool of institutions. The MRI program currently limits institutions to submitting three applications per year, and top research universities, able to afford the cost-sharing, routinely hit that cap to improve their odds of winning. In 2012, for example, the University of Oklahoma won three MRI awards.
“We didn’t expect it,” says meteorologist Kelvin Droegemeier, who at the time was vice president of research at the university, one of the 146 R1 institutions that perform the most research. “But we were able to come up with the required match” of $560,000, recalls Droegemeier, who led NSF’s earlier cost-sharing review by the National Science Board and later served as science adviser to former President Donald Trump.
With roughly one-third of that sum to meet cost-sharing requirements in any given year, Gerald Blazey, vice president for research at Northern Illinois University (NIU), can’t afford to reach the cap. So NIU, an R2 institution, has typically submitted only one MRI proposal a year. It has won five MRI awards in the program’s 30-year history, whereas some major research universities have snared more than 50.
Even without the matching requirement, Blazey must still find the money to pay for operations and maintenance of any new NSF-funded instrument. NSF imposed the cap because it feared a research project would suffer or the new instrument be underutilized if universities overextended themselves. “We want to ensure that institutions are committed to the operations and maintenance of what are, typically, expensive, durable, shared-use instruments with a long lifespan,” says Alicia Knoedler, who leads the NSF office that oversees the MRI program.
Some researchers hope NSF’s new rules, expected out later this year, will remove that cap. “I’d like to see an open competition, like NSF does for most of its programs, and then fund the strongest proposals,” says Pamela Clarke, head of Howard University’s research development office. Howard, which wants to regain R1 status by 2024, has won an MRI award in each of the past 4 years, she notes.
Another open question for NSF is whether the waiver will encourage institutions to ask for more money. At the University of Houston, Paige Evans, a science educator, adjusted her 2018 Noyce application upward at the last minute after university officials told her they were boosting the size of the match. “The size [of the proposal] is dictated by cost-sharing,” says Evans, who ultimately won a $2.8 million Noyce award to train two cohorts of 15 high school teachers.
The new policy could also affect how researchers go about assembling proposals. For example, before microbiologist Matthew Fields of Montana State University could ask NSF to fund a new $1.1 million digital fluorescent microscope for the Center for Biofilm Engineering that he leads, Fields first had to convince a regional foundation, the M.J. Murdock Charitable Trust, to provide some matching funds. Such conversations often make for sharper proposals and better science, Knoedler says.
Congress wants to make sure institutions don’t skimp on in-house support for an MRI instrument or Noyce grant they didn’t help pay for, say Democratic staffers on the House science committee, which wrote the CHIPS provision. That possibility also worries Droegemeier.
“You need to be careful not to set [institutions] up to fail,” he says. “You don’t want to have them fumble the money they receive.”